Highlands takes steps to hire new attorney

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

Once the Town Attorney JK Coward announced his retirement on Jan. 26, the Town Board wasted no time outlining a plan to pursue candidates.

Former Highlands Town Attorney JK Coward

At a Special Town Board Friday, Feb. 3, with the help of Town Manager Josh Ward, commissioners discussed what the town needs in an attorney based on current requirements.

It was decided that a Town Attorney’s duties would now include presiding over the Zoning Board of Adjustment as well as the Town Board.

Ward said variances are the issues the Zoning Board is usually concerned about but now that Special Use Permits are needed for Short-term Rentals and Tourist Homes, those, too, will be heard by the Zoning Board.

Interestingly, now that Zoom has come into play, it’s no longer necessary for the Town Attorney to appear in person at Town Board meetings and now the Zoning Board.

That means the town won’t have to pay travel fees and it can look farther away than in has in the past for candidates.

“I would like to keep candidates ‘local’ but it would be OK to cast a wider net,” said Commissioner Amy Patterson. “But we should want a firm in or familiar with Western North Carolina and maybe someone versed in land use.”

She said there are issues germane to Western North Carolina that are not important in the Piedmont.

Ward said some attorneys with Poyner Spruill, the firm that is representing the town regarding short-term rental issues, said they would be interested in being considered.

Commissioners agreed there would be benefits to having a large firm with resources and specialties because the town wouldn’t have to search for an outside attorney when expertise in a special area is needed.

But Commissioner John Dotson was clear.

“If we go with a candidate in a large firm, we don’t want the firm to be the attorney. We want the attorney to be our attorney,” he said. “If he or she leaves the firm for whatever reason, we want the option of going with him or her.”

Ward presented 34 questions candidates would be asked to answer including previous experience, education, interest in NC Local Government law, knowledge of NC zoning laws, knowledge of ABC laws, knowledge of NC statutes regarding municipalities, fees, amount of a retainer, terms, and more.

The ad that will run in various applications will include verbiage along these lines, “The board is seeking to fill a vacancy being left by the current contract attorney who has served in this capacity for the past 9+ years, and the board is seeking counsel with considerable local government experience who will attend Town Board and Zoning Board meetings.”

According to Commissioner Patterson, Coward’s reason for resigning was to begin downsizing his responsibilities so he can retire soon with the hopes of traveling.

Patterson also said he probably wanted to resign before his case load included the lawsuits the town is likely to be involved with down the pike, as disengaging from them would be difficult.

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